Looking back at significant life events, I’m sure most folks would agree that hindsight is 20/20. Often times people say, “If only I knew then what I know now.” The same is true for me when reflecting back on my 2015 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike. I remember all of the silly concerns and worries I had before embarking on what (so far) has been the most difficult and incredible journey of my life. In hopes that some of these might be useful to future hikers, here are 5 tips I wish I could tell my pre-hike, worrisome self:
1)Pooping in the woods isn’t a big deal.
Sure, at first everyone might be a little nervous about becoming one with nature. If you think about it though, every animal (other than humans) feels completely normal using the bathroom in the woods–you know why? Because it’s natural. Humans went without indoor plumbing for more years than we’ve actually had it.
I think I was most concerned with all of the rules about where and how to poop. You can refer to my “Hygiene On The AT” video and the ATC rules for more details, but basically just don’t go pooing near water sources, on trail or directly in camp. Most of the shelters have privies (outhouses), but there will be times when you won’t have that luxury. In those instances, remember to walk TWO-hundred feet from a water source to go number TWO (which is about 80 paces). You’ll dig a 6-inch deep hole and make your deposit. It’s pretty much as simple as that.
I became so accustomed to using the bathroom when and where the feeling decided to strike that it was kind of hard readjusting back into civilization. I had to re-learn how to “hold it” until finding a public restroom. Anyway, the point is don’t stress over using the bathroom in the woods because before long you’ll be openly talking with your hiker friends about the amazing sunrise you witnessed during your “nature dump.”
2)Start with sunscreen.
If it’s cold outside you don’t need sunscreen, right? WRONG. I began my thru-hike on March 29th and it was still pretty chilly. Because it was cold, the thought of sunscreen just didn’t really register to me. Even while hiking in the sun, getting burned wasn’t a concern because the heat felt good in the cool weather. What I failed to think about was all of the UV rays that were scorching my skin. I learned the hard way, but thankfully someone else had some sunscreen I could borrow. The calf area on my right leg was burned so badly I had to tie a bandana around it to keep the sun from hitting it until it could heal.
The interesting part of it all is once it warms up and Spring hits in full force you won’t need sunscreen. The leaves will grow in on the trees, develop a canopy and shade out the trail. The A.T. isn’t nicknamed the “green tunnel” for nothing!
3)Big, clunky, traditional leather boots aren’t necessary.
When I first talked to a friend about hiking the Appalachian Trail, he suggested I wear a pair of traditional leather boots. Because he was more experienced, I took his suggestion and ended up selecting a pair of Lowa hiking boots. I figured they would protect my feet from rocks and would provide good ankle support. Although I never felt like I had to break them in, as boots typically do, they seemed somewhat clunky and heavy. By Neel Gap (less than a week in), I had developed tendonitis in my right Achilles due to the boot drumming on my ankle. So, unless you truly have ankle issues, you may not really need as much ankle support as you think.
I spoke with the footwear associate at Mountain Crossings, the outfitter in Neel Gap, and he helped me pick out a new pair of Salomon trail runners. All I can say is after wearing boots for a few days, the trail runners made me feel like I was walking on a cloud. They were lightweight, slimmer and dried faster than my boots (even though they were goretex).
The truth is, millions of people step on the Appalachian Trail each year. It is a well beaten path due to the trail maintenance and traffic. You won’t be bushwacking your way through brambles in the wilderness. As far as the rocks go, I didn’t have any issues with my trail runners. With anything else gear related, it is personal preference–but you don’t NEED boots to successfully complete a thru-hike of the AT.
4)It’s not your job.
Society would have you believe that you are meant to wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, eat lunch, work some more, rush home, cook dinner and go to sleep. Then repeat. When you have a job, that’s just what you do. Well, news flash, while you’re on the AT you most likely will be job-free. Don’t forget to embrace that experience and truly enjoy the freedom that comes with it.
It probably took me about a month to realize that I was treating the trail as if it were a job. I woke up to an alarm each morning, ate a quick breakfast and got to hiking. I usually stopped about an hour for lunch and then hiked until it was time to set up camp. When it finally dawned on me that I was conforming to the programming I had been exposed to my whole life, I decided to truly let go and tried to enjoy the flexibility that came with hiking the trail. I made a point to sip my coffee while I cooked breakfast each morning. If some exciting opportunity came up, I didn’t turn it down for the sake of making miles. The only regret I have about this decision is that I didn’t make it sooner.
You will have plenty of time in life for schedules and a job–leave all of that at home!
5)The trail will change you.
Of course the this will be different for everyone, but the trail will change you according to how much you let it. For most it’s definitely a confidence booster. I mean, after you walk from Georgia to Maine, is there really anything you CAN’T do if you put your mind to it?
I honestly didn’t realize how much my perspective would change due to my journey. I began to appreciate the simplicity of trail life and saw how little a person really needs to be happy and fulfilled. It became apparent to me how much control I have over my life and how it’s up to me to make my little world what I want it to be. If I choose to be a prisoner of this life and to only work, pay bills and die then that’s of my own accord. If you don’t design your own life, someone else will.
I thought I would hike the AT and then slip back into the rat race of everyday life, but something happened. I heard the voice of my true self that had been suppressed for so long due to what society wanted and expected for my life. I got to know the real me through my struggles and victories and somewhere along the way I decided that I have too many dreams and goals to let it all fizzle out on top of Katahdin.
I’m finally in the driver’s seat and I don’t plan on turning loose of the wheel anytime soon.
To the upcoming thru-hikers, I wish you the best and I hope you find these tips useful! Also, to anyone who has already completed the trail, I’d love for you to share some things you wish you could tell your past self before starting the trail. Please feel free to share in the comments below–